Spam, a Punchline, a Roof-tile: The Nature of Aphorism in Lera Auerbach's 'Excess of Being'

Spam, a Punchline, a Roof-tile: The Nature of Aphorism in Lera Auerbach's 'Excess of Being'

You’re at home after work when your college friend calls you--her boyfriend just broke up with her. She didn’t see it coming. Everything was going fine, when out of nowhere, a letter showed up on her doormat; he’s had a change of heart and doesn’t think they should continue. She sobs; her voice shakes; you tell her you’re on your way.

Three weeks later, you’re at home after work and your phone rings. You’ve spent every day since the breakup on the phone with your friend, hearing her out, consoling her, even crying with her at times. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. Whereas once you responded to her distress with patience and sensitivity, her sadness has worn on you--you’re tired of it, you want her to get over it. While she still mourns the loss of her relationship, there are other things you’d rather spend your time doing, like hitting up the Barcade down the street, whose happy hour ends in thirty minutes. “Time heals all wounds,” you say reassuringly as you eye the clock, “time heals.

One of the earliest lessons a writer learns in workshop or elsewhere is to avoid cliche. Cliche is the low-hanging fruit of literary language; overused, overly broad--it’s abused principally by young writers looking for sonically taut phrases that appear to have the authority that comes with experience. These are the reasons why we turn to cliche in everyday conversation--they make us seem quick witted, they make us seem sonically savvy, even wise, but ultimately, they betray our flippancies, our uncaring, and our unoriginality.

Lera Auerbach’s latest collection of poems, Excess of Being (Arch Street Press, 2015), meditates on a variety of subjects: music, muses, misgivings, writing, readership, and art, to name a few. But despite its designations, the collection is truly a meditation on literary form, specifically, the aphorism. Of all of the literary forms (if you can call it literary) the aphorism encompasses the impulses that potentially support or threaten a poem’s strengths. Like the best poetry, aphorisms are compressed, and rhythmically arranged; like the worst poetry, they generalize; they lack nuance, which is why you can use a phrase like “time heals” to comfort a friend going through a break up, or someone who has just stubbed their toe. So from the collection’s inception, Auerbach writes herself into a box with few methods of escape. How can a poet meet the demands of both an aphorism and a poem without diluting the poem’s intensity or narrowing the broadness of its appeal? Is it possible to reach a middle ground? And if so, is that middle ground the kind of place a reader even wants to be?

The collection opens with a question: “What can be better than an aphorism?” The speaker’s answer: “Its absence,” Not a reassuring start to a book that obsesses over aphorism. As one might say about a friend’s unimpressive boyfriend, it’s difficult to say what she sees in it, especially for a writer who so clearly enjoys language. Excess of Being catalogs dozens upon dozens of sentence-long reflections on art, love, loss, all of the heavy subjects one expects from a melancholic artist, and while Auerbach’s choice in form is mystifying, it is readily apparent that she sees limitless opportunity for play. Take this sampling here:


There are only

two types of composers:

composing composers

and decomposing composers (35).


Possession of a bird

doesn’t guarantee

possession of a song (41).


The only thing

worse than


is too much

patience (260).


The Devil loves quoting prophets (423).

In this smattering of aphorisms from throughout the collection, we see a speaker in love with paradox; she explores ways in which to subvert meaning, feeling, and expectation. Auerbach continually introduces ideas before quickly manipulating them against themselves the way a martial artist might throw their opponent, or an action hero who disarms his enemy with the flick of the wrist, only to use their weapon against them. And though Auerbach at times employs varying syntactical structures in her explorations, Excess of Being reads heavy with paradoxical constructions like those excerpted above, and they reveal less about their purported subjects than we should hope. As previously mentioned, by committing so wholly to aphorism as engine, for a collection spanning nearly 500 pages, even as we near its end, it feels as though the speaker has only scratched the surface. This is not due to Auerbach’s lack of imagination or depth, but rather because poetry relies on the motors of repetition and variation--too much of either can render even the best ideas inert. Written as single sentences, single lines, or couplets, Auerbach piles aphorisms high, often using the same syntactical judo-move, and even though the speaker’s attention modulates from one subject to another, after a while, the music registers as stagnant, unmoving. Shortly into the collection, we are able to anticipate where a statement might end--with yin listening to yang, the reflection speaking truth to its subject.

Excess of Being, however, is not without its pleasure. In what is the most thrilling moment in the collection, Auerbach confronts aphorism as a form, invoking its name, then indulging in it; she simultaneously defines and challenges its qualities:

When words are few, each finds its place. It's easy to get lost in a crowd


Aphorisms are samples of what this book could have been.


Aphorism: an afterthought of a preconception


An aphorism is the epitaph to a thought


Aphorisms: spam of a writer with a short attention span.


Aphorisms: punch lines, aimed not at the reader, but at the author.


Note: My best thought just evaporated.


Aphorism: an appetizer without a meal to follow.


Aphorism: a prelude to a canceled sermon (63-66).

With this litany of definitions, Auerbach modulates from clinical language at the start, with highly Latinate words like “samples,” “preconception,” and “epitaph,” to more colloquial diction with words like “spam” and “punch line.” Though the list repeats itself, these sonic pivots move the poem in unexpected ways, illustrating the dynamic qualities of the speaker's relationship with aphorism, as well as its multiplicity--an aphorism can be an aspiration, a deterrent, a call to action--all of these, all at once. It brings to mind Section II from Ginsberg’s Howl, in which the speaker confronts the cannibalistic forces that have devoured the minds of his peers, personified as the god Moloch:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their               brains and  imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children                   screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in           the parks!

Moloch! Mol ch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch!                        Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and            Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the                  vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

In Ginsberg’s poem, the speaker also invokes obsession by name. He enumerates the ways in which it consumes, the ways in which it steals, the ways in which it shapes the world it lives in with each qualifying phrase widening the depth of destruction. Auerbach’s  litany similarly deepens our understanding of her relationship to aphorism, but Excess of Being comes off as more meditative, more contained, less frantic. It's hard to evoke mania with such short lines, even with dramatic shifts in diction, though it's clear that within this speaker burns a passion for expression and artistic connection. Aphorism, often used to tamp down or contain unruly or unexpected situations, seems antithetical to artistic exploration. And maybe that's central to Auerbach’s argument, that art requires room for elaboration and searching, but to fully prove that point, Auerbach needs to more dramatically subvert the form with greater specificity in her diction, as well as take more adventurous risks with her syntax.

One poem that achieves this, amongst other things, is John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” The speaker questions a droll teaching of his mother that “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources,” and subsequently sends the language off the rails as his investigation deepens:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy   
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,   
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag   
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            
behind: me, wag.

Though Berryman borrows aphoristic language that verges on cliche, the poem does not live in that register long enough to rob it of its momentum. Boredom, declaration, mania--Berryman layers a few motifs throughout the poem but despite all of its refrains, the poem’s syntax and diction vary enough to keep the poem moving in unexpected ways. The language contorts itself into formations so far from conventional expression that by the poem’s end, it feels as if we’ve left the stratosphere. Now that Auerbach has thought long and hard about aphorism, it will be interesting to see where that new knowledge leads her. After long periods of obsession, we sometimes feel repelled at the prospect of confronting it again--whether it’s a piano sonata we played over and over again, or what was once our favorite food. How long before Auerbach returns to aphorism, if ever? How might she approach the next poem she writes? Perhaps it will have long lines with sentences that lead us deep into the margins of the page, and beyond.

Review: Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss

Review: Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss. 73 pp. Graywolf Press.

A child rummages through a new, perhaps forbidden place like an attic. Dangers abound: she could fall through the ceiling, or stick her toe in a rat trap, or discover something unseemly, hidden up there so that it would be forgotten. For the child, the promise of discovery is too electric to refute, so she goes forth, opening this drawer and that, hoping to find something luminously new. The poems in Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, follow similar impulses, as the speaker investigates memory, reopening past losses, desires, art, and beauty. Like a forbidding mother, the past tries to say no to the present, denies it agency and immediacy. Invigorated by Seuss’s imagistic and associative storytelling, the struggle to sever umbilical ties to the past reveals the subtle but profound difficulties of subsisting in the present.  

Four-Legged Girl is the kind of book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. How to maneuver the language of loss, namely the loss of a father to illness, or a mother to gambling, or a lover to addiction—we enter as fully capable as the speaker; even years later, she seems as if she’s just starting to figure this out. In a poem called “People, the ghosts down in North-of-the-South aren’t see-through,” the speaker proclaims as if to an audience


                                                They want to steal

our valuables, mess shit up, drop a match and burn


down the house. I don’t know any other way to say it,

people. They walk right into our kitchens without being invited,

tracking mud, lifting fish by the tail out of the fryer

and stuffing it in a cloth sack the color of a potato


just pulled out of the ground, and if there was a potato

pulled fresh out of the ground they’d take that too (10).


Ghosts, fixtures of the past, exact their wills on the present, levying palpably real consequences for the speaker, affected by Seuss’s use of concrete diction. They steal fish, “their pee sizzles when it hits the floor,” “they want / our whiskey, our gravy, our honey, our combs, our bees”—everything; they can control things that we can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, manifesting for them a reality that lives out in the speaker’s physical world, in addition to her mind.  

In a poem like this one, which comes early in the first section, Seuss provides us with a working definition of sorts, a primer in haunting, so that when we read a poem like “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” appearing later in the book, we naturally reflect back to earlier poems when ghosts reappear in the last stanza. This foregrounding of terms and images provides emotional context to which we can refer back as the speaker does between poems. A poem of longing, it pines for “the era of tiger lilies,” of “[frolicking] in the blue snow of an old television,” of a “death bed pomegranate,” a pastoral realm, whose flowering is subdued by her father’s cancer. The poem cannily instructs us how to find pleasure amidst grief. “Go to cemetery hill for silence” the speaker tells us,


and it’s nothing but a landscape

filled with baby grands, keys echoing


sunset, fedora on fire, my nerve endings

lit up like little trees. Hot, whiskey-scented

wind, Strayhorn wind, his woozy breath


on the back of my neck. Such a lush

lush. And the air is lush with ghosts,

standing in line, hats in hands (42).


Still roiling from the loss of her father, the speaker has learned to find pleasure within it, inventing her delight with language. She is able to lift the pall with phrases like “keys echoing sunset, fedora on fire, my nerve endings lit up like little trees,” while staring directly into the face of death itself. The electricity of Seuss’s image-making asserts the possibility of pleasure even in its inextricability from loss, and throughout this collection, the interplay of joy and mourning as sustained through Seuss’s handling of image begs the reader to ask whether or not sheer joy, or even blankness, is really possible.

The speaker’s world, upended of its familial order with her father’s death, seems alien in ways. This is reflected in the ways in which the poems move linearly, forging paths that reach far beyond their points of entry without taking so much as a quick glance back at their entries. They also forgo framing—they do not announce the subjects in their titles, or claim to know their destinations, or how they’re going to get there. The longish poem “Hub” starts out by describing a rainshade from the speaker’s childhood home


            The kids on 17th St. called themselves the Dismantlers, stripping

away the canopy from the ribs and stretchers and hollowing out the wooden


shafts, filling them with gumballs and wild onions. My father was cynical

about the whole enterprise. He’d walk in the rain like his tumors were made


of sugar (13).



Though not explicitly stated, the speaker connects the vandals and her father by association, relying on their proximity to one another as a bonding agent. Narratively, they have little to do with one another, but we can’t help but compare this act of comic vandalism to her father’s neglect. The speaker is subsequently left in the hands of her mother, who “rescinded anything shelter-shaped, including the parasol flowers,” leaving the speaker to fend for herself in a reality subverted by both paternal loss and maternal abandonment. As a result, the speaker seeks shelter beneath almost anything:


                                                                                                            When Wanda

gave up taxidermy and became a Jehova’s witness, some of us absconded with her

impressive collection of stuffed predatory birds, wings extended in mid-flight.


I impaled mine, a barn owl with glass eyes, on a long copper tube I found

at the shut-down pattern factory. I brandished my owl like a papal umbraculum


Whose purpose had nothing to do with weather, not shade but shadow (13).



She appears helpless here, her survival instincts stunted. Having only briefly known a stable home life, she has little idea how to build one for herself. With the copper tube in hand, she could fashion herself a shelter, or a baton. Instead, she creates the illusion of oversight through shadow, adult supervision cloaked as a morbid curiosity. At times, the strangeness in Seuss’s images verge on overshadowing the reflection at hand, but in and of themselves they demonstrate a willingness to venture into the uncanny, almost a desperation to construct meaning or beauty out of whatever is available to her.

The speaker is a fighter, and the sort of imaginative resourcefulness illustrated in a poem like “Hub” endures as she trawls the New York art scene of the late 1970s into adulthood, dragging with her all varieties of artists, junkies, and punks, who she brings to life through myriad combinations of diction. Seuss’s lines span across the page so that we get a lot of information delivered to us very quickly. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming with so many disparate parts to connect at once. In moments like these, however, we are welcome to sit back and enjoy her language simply as confection (“your skirt the color of crocus stamens and the silhouette of the witch-boot on your sideways twisted foot and your four knees” 73).  

We see some familiar faces, too. The speaker acquaints herself with William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol in the poems “It wasn’t a dream. I knew William Burroughs,” and “Warhol’s Shadows,” respectively. We see Burroughs and Warhol side-by-side, the former a slinger of pornography and dope, the latter “a column of chalk at dead center of the gallery / signing copies of Interview” (30). Seuss commemorates impact with imagery, and whereas we see Burroughs instructing her boyfriend to shoot heroin as he “sat watchfully nearby / hunched over, wearing a face / like a buzzard), she commands our attention toward Warhol’s art: 


The image circled us, caped,

canvases skirting the room like the bell of a jellyfish,

iterative, alliterative, a tolling black echo

against the mopped-on yellow and aubergine, chartreuse and indigo (29).


Amidst her search for self, the speaker realizes that she cannot rely on the artists themselves to provide the way to the center. Art, however, can. Seuss shows us Warhol’s celebrity, but pictures him as a man whose existence is predicated on his art, “a column of chalk,” someone who “did his best to pretend the paintings were simply commerce, / more of the same,” but who knew “they were not the same. / There was death in them. Beneath the nacreous wig he felt it coming” (30).  This realization is central to the speaker’s experience, and in the end, her devotion to art spares her from the past’s trespass into the present.

A mother may not nurture, a father may not provide, a lover may not tend, but an artist must create.  After being misled, bamboozled by concerns for exteriority, the speaker detaches herself from artifice, she “lets herself go.” In the poem, “Beauty is over” she says

             I like my weekends now, unengaged from what is called beauty. No luring.


             Perfuming. Pondering my purple eyelids. Their fluttering. I let my hair go

             rank, my body smell of body. The UPS man eyes the hair under my arms


             as I sign for his heavy box of ashes. He shivers, thanks God his little wife

             at home waxes herself smooth, doesn’t lumber or reek like a bear or limp


              to the door like some peg-leg, some Igor (71).

By this standard, the speaker can trust very little in a world so concerned with appearances, with what seems rather than what is. “Let be be finale of seem,” Wallace Stevens writes in the “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” This is Seuss’s vision, as well, as she opens and closes her collection with homage to the late-poet Lucille Clifton, lesser known than either Burroughs or Warhol, but for Seuss, an emblem of authenticity. She writes


                     Oh little lamb in my red brick hometown museum, one head


       gazing west, the other, east, the precious freak who lives at the heart of                          me

still. All of the new world leaders shall be those born with too many, too much,


the three-eyed, the four-legged, like twelve-fingered Lucille, with her bad

kidneys, bad teeth and bad breasts, her bad hair, her two-headed poetry, my


               titanium leg and screws, my stretch marks and wide caesarian scar, my                                overt

               and covert badness, my bad shoes and bare ankles, my badbadbadbad                                poetry (71).